Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
August 2009

John and Kate plus evil

'Orphan' takes the evil-child plotline to its outer limits

Orphan
Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Screenplay: David Johnson
Starring: Isabelle Fuhrman, Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, CCH Pounder, Aryana Engineer , Jimmy Bennett and Margo Martindale
Rated R / 2 hours, 3 minutes
Opened July 24, 2009
(out of four)

At what point does a movie start to work despite itself? What can or should we tolerate so long as it remains ruthlessly entertaining?

Orphan is a horror movie that accomplishes all of its intentions, and by any means necessary. Sometimes the tactics are cheap, sometimes they're not. Sometimes the events are scary, sometimes they're more inclined to draw a laugh. And rarely is it boring.

While the film has its hits and misses, I can conclusively say this: I was extremely surprised at just how far this movie goes. I did not expect to see this degree of content from an American studio. I admit I'm impressed that the film was allowed to get away with one scene in particular.

Movies about evil children doing evil things don't really have a strong track record. The ones that actually succeed are few and far between. Maybe it's because a little kid killing someone can't help but be campy. I mean, really - we get that films are trying to make these grade-schoolers appear sinister, but no matter what they do, we can't help but think it's either funny or adorable.

When they dismember a body, you just want to take pictures of it and show them to all your friends and co-workers next time they're over for a dinner party. Hey everybody, look what my precious did! Yep, that's a kidney!

In the case of Orphan, the evil child in question is a 9-year-old named Esther. Kate (Vera Farmiga, in a great performance) and John (Peter Sarsgaard) have just adopted her from an orphanage after suffering a stillbirth several months earlier. They approach the adoption with trepidation, but make a connection with Esther, a Russian girl who has had a troubled childhood to say the least.

Kate and John welcome Esther with open arms, as does their youngest daughter, Max (Aryana Engineer), who is deaf. Their son, Daniel (Jimmy Bennett), isn't quite as pleased with the family's new addition.

What's effective about Orphan is the way it sets up contentious dynamics between all the members of the family. As the implications of Esther's behavior grow more and more disturbing, Kate grows suspicious and fearful, while John brushes it all off. He thinks she's just being paranoid - and he has good reason. Kate's a recovering alcoholic - in fact, it was that condition that contributed to Max's deafness.

An unsettling alliance also forms between Max and Esther, even after the latter has done unspeakably sinister things. Though intimidation is certainly a factor, you could also read it as an extravagant magnification of the unspoken codes between siblings. You tell on me, I'll tell on you. ... This is our secret. ... Don't tell Mommy or they'll take me away.

For all the cheap devices the film employs from time to time - a handheld POV shot when there's no one really there, a jump scare from a bathroom window, etc. - Orphan remains morbidly, compulsively watchable. Exceptionally violent at times and consistently unsettling, it's an effective genre exercise even when it's bad.

Naturally, "shocking" third-act revelations are pretty much a prerequisite of the genre these days, and Orphan is no exception. But unlike so many other films, the twist here not only makes sense, but completely re-contextualizes much of what has come before. Benign details about the story or about Esther herself take on meaning.

Orphan is far from perfect, but it does what it does quite well - it plays the audience like a violin, and takes pleasure in doing so.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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